Capsule Art Reviews: "Heroes Alter Egos," "Houston Collects: African American Art," "Joe Mancuso: Still Still Life"

"Heroes Alter Egos" Utilizing images of Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes to represent the dark side of American culture has become an artistic cliché, just like JFK's visage gets used to symbolize good. Now that Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous Barack Obama poster has proclaimed open season on the presidential candidate's face as a tool for artistic expression signifying "hope," let the boredom begin. In "Heroes Alter Egos," a group show featuring works by Robert Hodge, Lovie Olivia, Michael K. Taylor and Lance Flowers, Obama makes at least three appearances, including a direct implementation of the Fairey poster. Conceptually, the show is meant as a mirror into urban culture, built around each artist's perception of a "hero," so Obama's inclusion makes perfect sense; it just doesn't bode well for art. The works succeed most when they're championing everyday people, as in Taylor's photo collages and Flowers's nicely layered and intricate patchworks of urban iconography. The most unusual (and humorous) depiction of a hero, though, is a wall of stacked, colorful boxes being navigated by Q*bert, the hopping, tube-nosed video game character. Credited to no artist in particular, it's a nice, simple statement amid the pop-cultural swirl of the exhibit. Q*bert's heroic mission, after all, is to change the color of things. Through October 2. space125gallery, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-9330. — TS

"Houston Collects: African American Art" In 1865, a North Carolina father built a desk for his little girl, who was learning to read. Such a desk may not seem noteworthy, as it is rough-hewn and made from mismatched scraps of old furniture, with some pieces painted and others written upon. But this desk becomes almost unbearably beautiful when you realize it was created by an enslaved man during a period when it was verboten for people like him and his daughter to learn to read or write. Such acts were punishable by lashing, mutilation (cutting off of the fingertip or tongue), imprisonment and death. The lovingly made Child's Desk (1865, Ann and James Harithas collection) can be seen in "Houston Collects: African American Art," at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It's a massive show that includes more than 250 works of art, through which the museum showcases institutional and private efforts to collect, document and preserve African-American art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Divided into eight artistic and historical groupings, the show includes work by 19th-century artists and craftspeople; artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance, civil rights and historically black colleges and Texas universities; and contemporary, folk and outsider artists. The show, although strong, demands editing, as there are a dozen or so mediocre pieces interspersed among the good and the great. Our advice for museum-goers at "Houston Collects"? Take two days to see the show — it's that big! — and forgive the handful of less than worthy works. Through October 26. Carolyn Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet,713-639-7300. — BS

"Joe Mancuso: Still Still Life" As Barbara Davis Gallery describes them, the works on display in "Still Still Life" are a departure from Joe Mancuso's usual "formal and meticulous" process. It's true they're different from the singular subjects of previous works, but they're still meticulously (even obsessively) made. Working within the milieu of abstract collage, Mancuso uses several different materials and techniques to construct balanced interactions of shape, texture and imagery (mostly flowers). Latex paint, carefully dripped from a syringe, forms grippy sectors that look like linoleum. Works like Satellite Heart contain a flower motif executed using different techniques — those may or may not be chemical transfer, screen print, watercolor, stencil, latex paint, resin and encaustic. White is usually the background for Mancuso's Day-Glo patchwork, but the artist isn't afraid to expose the bare canvas, either, and there's an appealing mystery in that choice. A painting like Firecracker feels like it blasted onto canvas from across the room, but in reality the jagged shards of red paint were lovingly applied without haste. It's high energy in slow motion. Through October 4. Barbara Davis Gallery, 4411 Montrose, 713-520-9200. — TS

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Troy Schulze
Contact: Troy Schulze
Beth Secor